Oil spill response plans are required for facilities regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that store more than 1 million gallons of oil and can potentially impact a sensitive environment. A facility response plan (FRP) documents response strategies and defines roles in the event of an oil spill, giving facilities such as aviation fuel farms, power plants or bulk storage terminals a road map for spill management.

While all regulated facilities will have an FRP on hand, the real test is putting this FRP into action. Facilities are required to conduct various drills and exercises — some quarterly, others semiannually or annually — to help test the strength of the response plan. The EPA takes this one step further with a government-initiated unannounced exercise (GIUE), performing thorough spot-checks annually. A GIUE is not conducted at every regulated facility each year, but randomly, to test the effectiveness of spill response, which directly impacts the resulting environmental damage and cleanup cost.

An FRP, as well as a GIUE, should be taken seriously. Without an effective spill response plan, a facility could face significant violation costs or be more vulnerable to safety hazards. The EPA’s objective for these exercises is not to penalize any facility. The agency approaches these exercises in a collaborative fashion, with a willingness to work closely with facilities until they have effective FRPs. As a bonus, when a facility runs its response plan smoothly and successfully, it becomes exempt from this federal exercise for the next three years.

What to Expect

Facilities are commonly given about a week’s notice from the EPA before a GIUE. When the agency arrives at the facility, EPA personnel will walk facility staff through the exercise guidelines. The facility is then expected to conduct its spill response and equipment deployment as if there was a small discharge and the oil had already reached the water.

At this point, EPA personnel step back and simply observe. They will only intervene if health and safety issues arise. This exercise, which engages the facility’s contractors and the deployment of booming techniques, finishes when the facility has equipment in place and is ready to start pumping water through an oil skimming device, if applicable, without actually doing so.

Common Violations

Across industries, there are two common violations seen in a GIUE. If the EPA indicates that a facility has not successfully completed its exercise, the facility may be required to participate in another GIUE until the facility passes. If another exercise is required, the EPA will work with facility staff on areas of improvement and then conduct another exercise later.

  • Facilities often forget to stop the source of the release as the first step of the spill response.
  • Facilities find shortcomings in their plan during the exercise when they haven’t collaborated with their contractors to develop the plan or run a spill response test. In these situations, it’s common for facilities to learn during the GIUE that their contractors are actually unable to meet the response plan timeline, such as having a containment boom in place within one hour of spill discovery or having oil recovery devices in place within two hours.

How to Prepare

Facility personnel should engage with oil spill response organizations (OSROs) early. OSROs can have a hand in creating an FRP by visiting the site and informing the most effective approach. This also helps establish a relationship between the facility personnel and the OSROs, which can lead to a more efficient response.

Facilities should conduct and take drill and exercise requirements seriously to know exactly how facility personnel will respond to an oil release in a time of crisis. Conducting a series of tabletop exercises and drills is both advantageous and mandatory as part of the FRP requirement. As a best practice, facilities should include any OSROs involved in the FRP on exercises and drills.


Regulatory specialists can help industries navigate the complex and ever-changing environmental health and safety compliance programs that are so critical to their work.


Amy Reed, PE, is an associate environmental engineer, compliance audit team member and project manager at Burns & McDonnell. A chemical engineer by training with over 20 years of experience, she specializes in helping industrial and utility clients comply with EPA regulations.